The British have had the right idea for a long time! You can go to just about any pub in the British Isles and get treated to a good meal, fantastic libations and a family friendly ambiance. Years before the term “gastropub” was coined, the concept had actually already started to be practiced and proliferated. A gastropub is a British term for a public house (pub) which specializes in high-end, high-quality food. The term gastropub, a combination of pub and gastronomy, is intended to define food which is a step above the more basic “pub grub,” but in actuality, it can be several degrees of magnitude better.
Gastropubs not only emphasize the quality of food served, they provide a relaxed milieu in which dining patrons can obtain cuisine (as opposed to grub) comparable to what they might receive at the very best restaurants–and ostensibly, at reasonable prices. Until recent years, mentioning bar food in America has conjured images of dank, dark, smoky and loud watering holes serving greasy, tasteless food you have to be four sheets to the wind to consume. Not so at Gecko’s Bar & Tapas, the very first gastropub in the Nob Hill area, where chef genius Todd Lovell lovingly crafts an imaginative menu of upscale comfort food favorites plus exceptionally well done traditional bar appetizers.
A chef for a quarter-century, Lovell has plied his craft in fine food dining restaurants and has served a tour of chef duty in Las Vegas, Nevada, but has found his niche at Gecko’s where he’s been given the freedom to create. His inspiration comes from a desire to serve excellent food at reasonable prices.
A long-time Nob Hill fixture, the second instantiation of Gecko’s launched in the far Northeast Heights (5801 Academy Road, N.E.) in December, 2006. At first glance, the new Gecko’s (where all the pictures on this review were taken) looks as if it should be called “The Bijou” or something cinematic. It’s a colorful antithesis of the Nob Hill location in many ways. Aside from its gaudy polychrome facade, the exterior frontage includes an anthropomorphic gecko (a true lounge lizard) performing a champagne toast. The gecko closely resembles the British accented Geicko gecko (say that five times fast).
The original Gecko’s might not be the type of pub David Frizell had in mind when he penned the lyrics to his country hit “I’m going to hire a wino to decorate our home.” Several tastefully done and colorful murals by famed local muralist Karen Deaton festoon the South-facing wall. One mural, “Deviled Eggs at Gecko’s” depicts happy hour patrons at Gecko’s enjoying tapas and spirits. Another “Who Left the Curtain Open” shows the serving staff unwinding (in various states of undress including one “cheeky” waitress with a gecko tatoo) after a busy shift at Gecko’s.
The interior of the new Gecko’s isn’t nearly as dark as the original. It’s ultra-modern with none of the dark woods so prevalent in the founding restaurant. It’s got a mural, too, albeit one of a seaside cityscape in which two geckos dance under a starry, moonlit sky. Smoking is no longer permitted at either Gecko’s location, though the malodorous ghost of cigarettes past is faintly noticeable at the original which had years’ worth of a head start for the odoriferous emanations to penetrate.
Chef Lovell’s specialty is tapas, the ubiquitous small snacks most people associate with Spain. Gecko’s menu explains that tapas represent a dining philosophy where small plates of small appetizers are to be shared amongst friends and family in a relaxed fashion. Lovell transforms simple ingredients into elaborate creations that with a few, can make a meal in themselves. The tapas menu changes periodically which may be a good thing in that you get variety, but may be a downer if you get too attached to some of the great little plates which might not make it back into the “rotation” for a while. Many of them are served with sauces obviously inspired by genius tempered with experience and creativity.
The shrimp and cabbage spring rolls, for example, are served with a hot, sour and sweet soy dipping sauce that while not Asian created, are inspired by the spirit and taste of Asia. They are better than 95% of the spring rolls served in Albuquerque’s Asian restaurants, many of which only hint at shrimp, but which are mostly cabbage.
Ditto for the tempura chicken skewers accompanied by a fiery chipotle cherry barbecue sauce that melds sweet, savory and piquant flavors to create a sensational taste sensation. Tempura lightly sheathes the chicken so that it’s poultry you taste, not batter. Similarly the sauce complements the chicken instead of making it taste like candied chicken.
Another A+ appetizer is the jerk spiced pork short ribs smothered with a smoky barbecue queso sauce–again, a pairing of seemingly disparate tastes that work exceptionally well together…and who but a creative genius might pair smoked kielbasa with a twany port reduction to form perhaps a sausage dish you might find to be the best of its kind in the Duke City.
My Luke Skywalker worshiping colleagues will agree the force is with Chef Lovell when they espy Baba-Fet on the menu. It’s unlikely this tapa is named for the “best bounty hunter in the galaxy” as the combination of baba ghanoush and feta cheese just seems to be a natural. At Gecko’s this mashed and seasoned eggplant dish is made as well as it is at some Mediterranean restaurants in the city.
It’s not just tapas at which Chef Lovell excels. His “bar apps” (referred to as the “ol’ standby” on the menu) include thinly-sliced and lightly spiced buttermilk onion rings which are most assuredly the very best in town. If chile con queso is what you crave, Gecko’s treats you to an extraordinary creation of chorizo blue cheese queso, perhaps the best in town of that genre. We’ve tried to duplicate some of Lovell’s masterpieces but have fallen consistently short.
Not surprisingly, Gecko’s also serves some of the best soups in town, including a rich and savory green chile chicken stew and a flavorful red chile clam chowder. While the green chile stew is standard daily fare, the chowders are rotated daily. Just how good are the soups at Gecko’s? Look above you as you walk in to the Academy restaurant and you’ll see three Souper Bowl awards including a third place award in 2012 for a sumptuous fire-roasted chipotle carrot chowder. Gecko’s has also been recognized by Local IQ readers as the best place in Albuquerque to take your dogs.
Where Gecko’s is nonpareil is in its sandwiches. The beer battered shrimp po’ boy slathered with jalapeno tartar sauce on a roasted onion baguette is better than similar sandwiches I consumed by the boat load on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and New Orleans. The shrimp are lightly battered and perfectly seasoned while the tartar sauce zings with a tangy, tongue-pleasing flavor. Seafood fanatics will also appreciate C.R.’s Crawdaddy Cake Sammich, a golden crawfish patty with leaf lettuce, and piled high with house o-rings and a gob of Cajun tasso ham and corn dressing on a kaiser roll. This sandwich was named one of the city’s 12 yummiest sandwiches in Albuquerque The Magazine‘s annual food and wine issue for 2012.
The one sandwich we’ve ordered more often than any other is Gecko’s T.B.L. This is no simple sandwich and it’s not just B.L.T. with its letters transposed. Stacked in triplicate with applewood smoked bacon, green leaf lettuce and ripe tomatoes on wheatberry bread, it puts to shame just about every other BLT we’ve ever had. It’s maybe even better, if possible, with a fried egg. The wheatberry (a term which refers to the entire wheat kernel) bread is lightly toasted and the applewood smoked bacon is the type of bacon only restaurants seem able to find. The tomatoes are indeed ripe, a welcome respite from the ubiquitous artificially ripened but consistently green tomatoes most restaurants serve.
The chef chose only one sandwich to share his name, Lovell’s Rueben. Fittingly it’s the quintessential sandwich invented in a Manhattan delicatessen about a century ago. Adorned with corned beef brisket, bacon sauerkraut, Muenster cheese and a zesty Russian dressing on a grilled marbled rye bread, Lovell should take pride in a namesake sandwich which might be the best of its kind in Albuquerque (sounds like a pattern here).
Fromage fanatics will appreciate Gecko’s version of a grilled cheese sandwich. It’s made with Cheddar and Swiss cheese, ripe tomatoes and Dijon mustard on wheatberry bread. The melted cheese practically oozes as you bite into the sandwich, but the oleaginous richness of cheese is tempered by the acidity of the ripe tomatoes and the sharpness of the Dijon. It’s an adult grilled cheese sandwich.
Not quite as cheesy are Gecko’s cheeseburger which comes with your choice of cheese (cheddar, Swiss, pepper jack or feta) and a bevy of toppings from which you can choose (green chile, bacon, sautéed mushrooms, grilled onions, grilled peppers, and avocado). The meat patties are hand-formed into thick, well-seasoned orbs. Not surprisingly, even the burgers are wonderful at Gecko’s.
There’s a lot to like at either location of Gecko’s Bar & Tapas, a surprisingly good gastropub with tapas that can’t be topped and sandwiches ranging from sensational to sublime.
Gecko’s Bar & Tapas
3500 E. Central
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 11 August 2012
# OF VISITS: 10
BEST BET: T.B.L., Green Chile Stew, Cheeseburger, Smoked Kielbasa, Onion Rings, Lovell’s Reuben